The fall in university undergraduate applications in England continued this autumn, according to the Independent Commission on Fees. In its latest analysis it highlights a drop amongst full-time applicants of 14 per cent – that’s 18,000 fewer students in England aiming for higher education than in 2010.

The Commission also reminds us last year’s HEFCE figures showed a steep decline of 40 per cent in the number of part-time undergraduates starting a degree in 2012 compared with 2010 and since maximum £9,000 fees came in. That’s a loss of 105,000 students.

No similar picture has emerged in the rest of the UK where the £9,000 maximum fee was not introduced.

These figures might have sparked public demonstrations around Westminster, a series of  damaging  PMQs for David Cameron, unrelenting calls for Nick Clegg to resign and irresistible pressure for a policy u-turn or something to ameliorate the impact of tuition fees in England… They might have were it not for the fact this is about mature students.

The good news is school leavers in England (18 & 19 year olds) have not been put off higher education by high fees quite as  some assumed. But, it appears, the over 20s have and that has made relatively little news so far. Certainly there is ageism and, some argue, maybe some sexism in our reaction to the impact of fees, but now inside and outside the HE sector there are increasing efforts to challenge that and stimulate action.

Mature and part-time students aren’t the same group – the majority of older students study full-time, but about 90 per cent of part-timers are mature and most of those are women. Growing concern about these groups  is shared by liberal minded educationists and business minded employers alike, strengthening the  case for action rooted in both fairness and the national economic interest.

Director of the Office for Fair Access, Professor Les Ebdon, argues part-time and mature  students are more likely to be from under-represented groups but just as likely as young and full-time applicants to have the talent to benefit from a higher education. He pledges to address the issue in the National Strategy for Access and Student Success – a collaboration with HEFCE expected to be published by BIS by the end of the year.

The strategy should draw on messages in the Part-Time Matters Campaign, which is supported by GuildHE, and in the UUK-led review of part-time and mature higher education, commissioned by Business Secretary, Vince Cable and due to be launched on 16th October.

That report will give voice to many concerns. It will warn part-time study specifically risks becoming the “Cinderella” of higher education. It will highlight how the public image of higher education is dominated by the idea of the residential full-time undergraduate who starts at 18; for most policy makers and commentators that was their university experience and therefore influences their understanding and appreciation of the sector’s diversity and of part-time study in particular.

This summer the CBI urged ministers to address the 40 per cent drop in part-time undergraduate applicants. In a report,  Tomorrow’s growth, it highlights “the UK’s growing demand for degree-level, technical skills in key sectors like manufacturing, construction, IT and engineering in order to drive long-term growth and stop us falling behind our competitors.” It argues this must include re-skilling and up-skilling the existing workforce and points to the flexibility provided by part-time study as crucial to making sure the training of employees fits with business needs.

The CBI makes a number of demands on both Ministers and Vice Chancellors. It calls for a clearer communications strategy for firms and individuals on fees and loans for part-timers. A large amount of time, money and imagination was eventually invested in drumming home the “no upfront fee” message to school/college leavers and their parents and was judged a success in minimising a downturn in applications.

For strategically important subjects the CBI also wants a reversal of rules which bar public funding for part- time degrees amongst those who already have equivalent qualifications. This ban, the CBI argues, holds back older workers needing to re-skill.

There’s a call to restore the public grant to universities to help fund the cost of part-time study. That fund was reduced when fees and loans were recently made available to part-time students.

And there is an often repeated message to universities and colleges to develop more commercial nous in their business outreach teams and to design more tailored courses with employers.

Universities have their own familiar plea to employers: to take the long view and commit to staff training and education. The point is nicely expressed by the Open University’s Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean in his stock of gags:
“An employer might say to me, ‘I can’t afford to invest in educating my staff – what if I pay for their  training and then they leave?’ And I reply, ‘What if you don’t train them and they don’t leave?’”

The joke might be familiar, but a sense there is a growing acceptance that mature and part-time higher education matter and deserve our attention – that’s definitely new.

Sue Littlemore


Sue Littlemore is a media consultant for GuildHE. Sue is an education journalist and former BBC Education Correspondent.